Farming With Drones & Robots

According to Heidi Johnson, crops and soil agent for Dane County, Wisconsin, “Farmers are the ultimate “innovative tinkerers”.” Farming, through the ages, has undergone vast changes. Although in developing worlds, you will still find stereotype farmers planting his seeds and praying for rain and good weather while waiting for his crops to grow, farm technology has progressed. Therefore, we now have twenty-four hour farming and driverless combines and autonomous tractors have moved out of agro-science fiction. Farmers now are good at developing things that are close to what they need.

For example, the Farm Tech Days Show has farmers discussing technology ranging from the latest sensors to cloud processing for optimizing their yield and robotics that can improve manual tasks. Most farmers are already aware of data analytics, cloud services, molecular science, robotics, drones and climate change among other technological jargon. The latest buzz in the agricultural sector is about managing farms that are not a single field, but distributed in multiple small units. This requires advanced mapping and GPS for tailoring daily activities such as the amount of water and fertilizer that each plant needs.

That naturally leads to observation, measurements and responding in real time. Because such precision farming means technological backup, with data being the crux of the issue to respond to what is actually happening in the field. A farmer would always like to know when his plants are suffering and the cause of their suffering.

For example, farmers want sensors that can tell them about the nutrient levels in the soil at a more granular level – potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen, etc. They also want to know how fast the plant is taking up such nutrients – the flow rate. This information must come in real time from sensors and there must be diagnostic tools to make sense of the data.

Although NIFA, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture were talking about the Internet of Ag Things, the concept is not new to farmers. In fact, farmers are already collecting information from both air and ground. They are doing this by flying drones, inserting moisture sensors into ground and placing crop sensors in machines when spraying and applying fertilizers.

Presently, what farmers are lacking is a cost effective, adequate broadband connection. Although Internet connectivity exists even in remote areas, thanks to satellite linkages, these are not cost effective to the farmer, as they have to deal with increasing amounts of data flow.

The current method farmers use is to collect data from the field on an SD card or thumb drive and plug it into their home computers. They transfer this data for analysis to services where crop consultants or co-operative experts are available. The entire process of turnaround takes a few days.

What farmers need is end-node farming equipment with the necessary computing power. This could help with processing and editing the raw data and sending only the relevant part direct to a cloud service. This requires an automated process and a real-time operation. With farms getting bigger, farmers need to cover much more acreage, while dealing with labor shortage and boosting yields in their farms.